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What Is Brain Fitness?

Just as physical fitness has become a central topic related to human health and wellbeing over the past decades, the recent explosion of research into brain structure, organization, and function signals that brain fitness is quickly catching up as one of the critical areas of scientific investigation.

This is because research into the concept of brain fitness seems to cut across several major concepts that affect nearly every aspect of our lives—such as learning, memory, plasticity, and environment.

Brain fitness can be defined as "the ability of the brain to learn what the organism needs to know in order to survive in a changing environment."

It comes as no surprise that the concept of brain fitness has waited for the 21st century to emerge. At no other point in human civilization have we witnessed more significant inter-generational divides in information and experienced such rapid societal and technological change that a considerable portion of knowledge learned by the parents' generation becomes outdated for the following generation. These extreme changes create a need to assimilate new learning methods and devise new information-processing circuits in the brain for generational updating.

As we continue to witness the transformation of civilization from local to global, from a knowledge-limited society to an ever-evolving society based on the free flow of information, we will need to create environments that produce brains capable of maintaining a life-long ability to learn.

The idea of brain fitness is based on the understanding that the human brain can be trained or rehabilitated by manipulating stimuli and environmental influences—a concept known as brain plasticity—and that learning continues to affect brain fitness and the ability to learn in a never-ending cycle.

What Are Some of the Cognitive Abilities Affected By Brain Fitness?

Brain Fitness can affect a huge variety of daily activities, from our ability to remember what we have on the grocery list to planning our daily chores to driving safely to and from football practice. Every activity we perform relies on one or more of our cognitive skills, and a healthy brain is able to perform these essential tasks more efficiently. Cognitive skills are a set of higher-order thinking processes that allow us to reason, pay attention, learn, and remember. They are the skills we use to make sense of the world around us and complete tasks with problem-solving. Here are some examples of how Brain Fitness affects common cognitive abilities:

  • Working Memory:There are multiple types of memory, but working memory is one of the most crucial cognitive skills we use every day. Working memory, or operative memory, can be defined as the set of processes that allow us to store and manipulate temporary information and carry-out complex cognitive tasks like language comprehension, reading, learning, or reasoning. Working memory is a type of short-term memory.
  • Planning Planning, one of the fundamental cognitive skills, is our ability to "think about the future" or mentally anticipate the right way to carry-out a task or reach a specific goal. Using this mental process, we are able to choose the actions required to reach a goal, decide the right order, assign the proper cognitive resources to each task, and establish a plan of action.
  • Processing Speed Processing speed is a central component of many other cognitive processes, which is why it is one of the most important skills in learning, academic performance, intellectual development, reasoning, and experience. Processing speed refers to the amount of time it takes to understand and mentally organize information that one receives.
  • Response Time: Response time rrefers to the amount of time that passes between when we perceive something and respond to it. This cognitive ability is closely related to processing speed, however, where processing speed is the amount of time it takes to understand incoming stimuli, response time is the amount of time it takes to formulate a response and react to what we have perceived.
  • Focused Attention: Focused attention is the cognitive ability that allows us to attend and respond to relevant stimuli in the environment and while ignoring irrelevant stimuli. Focused attention is what allows us to work or study in noisy environments without getting distracted, or to maintain focus on the road while driving and ignore stimuli such as a notification on our phone.
Brain Fitness

How Does Brain Fitness Affect Learning And Cognitive Ability?

We know that, despite adequate intelligence, appropriate instruction, and sufficient opportunity for practice, some people struggle to master the skills they are taught. For example, individuals living with Dyslexia have difficulty mastering reading; individuals living with Dysgraphia may struggle to master writing; and those living with Dyscalculia, arithmetic.

However, in a magnificent tour-de-force, many of these individuals show extraordinary compensation ability and—despite impaired reading, writing, or arithmetic skills—succeed in achieving goals that require those very skills. They use what is available in the environment to compensate for their brain's inability to master a specific skill as quickly as other learners.

This can be seen when an individual with Dyslexia guides their reading by listening to the oral readings provided by teachers and parents. Their brain learns to process written language in a way profoundly different from that of other reading brains, which can decode letters and sounds on their own.

The brain's ability to compensate in this manner is directly related to cognitive health and Brain Fitness. Brain Fitness is linked to the brain's ability to adjust and improve skills using more than one learning style and one problem-solving strategy.

Can We Improve Brain Fitness?

Today, people are beginning to recognize the importance of keeping the brain fit and healthy in a similar manner to our body. Over time, our cognitive abilities, such as memory or hand-eye coordination, tend to decline. Keeping those cognitive skills in top shape allows us to remain sharp and enjoy our daily life and experiences.

Mental training can be an integral part of maintaining a healthy mental state. Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, and keeping the mind stimulated regularly can help boost our cognition and support the different cognitive skills we use daily.

  • Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle: Anyone who has had to perform on stage or give a speech in front of a large group of people knows that stress and anxiety, supposedly mental phenomenon, can manifest in physical discomforts such as "Butterflies" in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate.

    Similarly, when we find ourselves receiving praise or affection, the feelings of happiness and euphoria we experience are readily apparent when our cheeks blush, our eyes dilate, and we can even begin to cry from joy in extreme cases.

    But just as our brain can affect our body, too can our bodies have a powerful effect on our brains' function.
    A cup of coffee in the morning helps us focus and feel more alert. A glass of alcohol can give us a euphoric feeling, reduce social inhibitions, and drastically slow down our ability to react to stimuli.

    While these are extreme examples of the brain-body connection, the interconnectedness of our mental and physical selves means that nearly everything we do to our body, from taking medications, running a marathon, or sitting on a couch all day playing video games, to something as simple as drinking a glass of water can affect how we feel and how well our brains perform.

    The brain is like an orchestra. It has to be coordinated to work correctly, and in order to be well-coordinated, we have to give it the proper nutrition. Our brain needs a ton of different nutrients that provide energy to do all of the many various tasks that it has to handle every day.

    In addition to eating well, getting plenty of sleep is also crucially important for maintaining a healthy brain. Who hasn't had problems concentrating at work after a poor night's sleep? In 2013, a study showed that this common complaint among those who slept poorly wasn't subjective, but true reality: People who don't get the reparative sleep at night that they need and those who suffer from some type of insomnia show memory and concentration problems.

    Recovery sleep has turned into one of the main recommendations for maintaining and enjoying a good memory. In the last few years, more and more people have begun to talk about the benefits that a good night's sleep can offer us.
  • Get Plenty of Exercise Staying active with physical exercise can help reduce the risk of a number of diseases and is therapeutic for a number of physical alterations, from prostate cancer to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

    Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise are effective at improving cognitive health, and it seems that a schedule of 30 minutes or more of high-intensity workouts three to five times a week proves the most beneficial.

    This healthy habit provides benefits due to its varied effects, like the release of serotonin, which improves sleep, and endorphins. The psychological effects of exercise include improved self-esteem, self-perception, interruption of negative thoughts, and relaxation.

    We know that the benefit of exercising regularly is incredible to prevent or delay heart disease, diabetes, and other physical ailments. Studies also show that physical activity has benefits for the brain too. Some studies have shown that exercise can help to improve learning and spatial memory.
  • Keep Your Brain Stimulated: Staying mentally active is just as important as staying physically active. Like an athlete will remain active between training sessions, staying mentally active can help anyone maintain Brain Fitness and get the most out of their training.

    Some ideas of activities that can keep your mind active are reading books or magazines, taking classes about something new, playing games, learning a new skill or hobby, and volunteering—and social activities may be the best form of cognitive stimulation around.

    Many people who participate in volunteer programs or have hobbies that involve other people claim that they feel happy and healthy. All of these activities can benefit your brain, and they can be fun, too!

How Can We Measure & Track Brain Fitness?

Just as we want to track our physical health and fitness, both to measure improvement from exercise and to detect ailments and declines caused by aging or injury, we also should track our cognitive health and Brain Fitness.

Tracking Brain Fitness can be done in various ways, ranging from simple actions such as self-reporting to in-depth scientific methods such as Brain Quizzes and cognitive assessments.

Just like someone on a diet might stand in front of a mirror each morning to see if they notice any progress, so too might someone actively training their Brain Fitness perform self-reported tests such as trying to remember a list of items or quickly completing the daily crossword puzzle. While this can be beneficial in moderation, it can be quite difficult to judge these improvements accurately and may lead to frustration due to the inability to recognize the gradual progress.

For a more scientific way to track cognitive health, assessments and Brain Quizzes are cognitive tools based on scientific neuropsychological research that are designed to assess a variety of variables related to cognitive abilities. These assessments are standardized, meaning their measurements are reliable across time (unlike those daily crosswords, which may be much more difficult from day to day).

References

Horowitz-Kraus T, Breznitz Z. - Can the error detection mechanism benefit from training the working memory? A comparison between dyslexics and controls- an ERP study - PLoS ONE 2009; 4:7141.

Evelyn Shatil, Jaroslava Mikulecká, Francesco Bellotti, Vladimír Burěs - Novel Television-Based Cognitive Training Improves Working Memory and Executive Function - PLoS ONE July 03, 2014. 10.1371/journal.pone.0101472

James Siberski, Evelyn Shatil, Carol Siberski, Margie Eckroth-Bucher, Aubrey French, Sara Horton, Rachel F. Loefflad, Phillip Rouse. Computer-Based Cognitive Training for Individuals With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Pilot Study - The American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias 2014; doi: 10.1177/1533317514539376

Preiss M, Shatil E, Cermakova R, Cimermannova D, Flesher I (2013) Personalized cognitive training in unipolar and bipolar disorder: a study of cognitive functioning. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00108.

Haimov I, Shatil E (2013) Cognitive Training Improves Sleep Quality and Cognitive Function among Older Adults with Insomnia. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61390. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061390

Shatil E (2013). Does combined cognitive training and physical activity training enhance cognitive abilities more than either alone? A four-condition randomized controlled trial among healthy older adults. Front. Aging Neurosci. 5:8. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2013.00008

Peretz C, Korczyn AD, Shatil E, Aharonson V, Birnboim S, Giladi N. - Computer-Based, Personalized Cognitive Training versus Classical Computer Games: A Randomized Double-Blind Prospective Trial of Cognitive Stimulation - Neuroepidemiology 2011; 36:91-9.

Shatil E, Metzer A, Horvitz O, Miller A. - Home-based personalized cognitive training in MS patients: A study of adherence and cognitive performance - NeuroRehabilitation 2010; 26:143-53.

Korczyn AD, Peretz C, Aharonson V, et al. - Computer based cognitive training with CogniFit improved cognitive performance above the effect of classic computer games: prospective, randomized, double blind intervention study in the elderly. Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association 2007; 3(3):S171.

Shatil E, Korczyn AD, Peretzc C, et al. - Improving cognitive performance in elderly subjects using computerized cognitive training - Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association 2008; 4(4):T492.

Verghese J, Mahoney J, Ambrose AF, Wang C, Holtzer R. - Effect of cognitive remediation on gait in sedentary seniors - J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2010 Dec;65(12):1338-43.

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